10 TV Shows No One Thought Would Work But Turned Out Great


  • Shows that may not seem interesting at first can still shine through with quality.
  • Compelling concepts alone are often not enough for a show’s success; the right conditions are also crucial.
  • TV shows can defy expectations and become hits, even if they are initially overlooked or have risky premises.

Many great TV shows don’t seem like interesting ideas until audiences get a chance to see the final product, but then their quality shines through. Not all shows can be sold based on their premise alone. Shows that aren’t immediately eye-catching can often struggle to get recognized in the hyper-competitive TV landscape, with so many different shows competing for people’s attention. But shows with all the right ingredients for success can overcome the odds stacked against them, even if nobody expects them to work from the very beginning.

There are a few other reasons a show might appear to be doomed from the start. Shows need more than just a compelling concept. They also need the right conditions to be able to find their audience. This means that shows created for certain networks or streaming platforms are less likely to succeed, even if they have everything else needed to become hits. Fortunately, some outstanding TV shows demonstrate that interesting storytelling is still the most important factor to any show’s success. Even though nobody gave these shows a chance, they quickly turned into unmissable TV.

10 Squid Game (2021-)

A rare international sensation

It’s very rare for non-English language TV shows to gain worldwide popularity in the same way that Squid Game has done. Squid Game’s unique premise helped it cut through and connect with audiences all over the world. It may have been influenced specifically by issues of class disparity in South Korea, but it resonates as a diatribe against inequality anywhere in the world. Squid Game backs up its biting social satire with all the requisite brutality. The show’s juxtaposition of innocent childhood games with death and poverty is one way in which it drives home its message, and the eye-catching visual design is another huge help.

9 Mad Men (2007-2015)

AMC’s first big swing

Jon Hamm talking on the phone in a scene as Don Draper from Mad Men

Not much was expected from AMC, which originally stood for American Movie Classics, showing how uninterested the network was in producing original TV shows.

AMC’s first foray into prestige TV established the channel as a real competitor. Not much was expected from AMC, which originally stood for American Movie Classics, showing how uninterested the network was in producing original TV shows. Mad Men came with an abundance of sleek mid-century style, but its acute representation of the era’s misogyny and casual racism could also have been a huge turn-off. Mad Men’s best seasons came a little later, but it was already a hit during its first season. Its calculated approach to some sensitive topics shows the uncomfortable parallels between the modern day and a recent past when certain prejudices were more explicitly stated.

8 Breaking Bad (2008-2013)

A risky premise proved to be inspired

Walt and Jesse in season 2 episode 1 of Breaking Bad

Despite the success of Mad Men, AMC’s Breaking Bad seemed much riskier. At the time, Bryan Cranston was best known as the father from the family sitcom Malcolm in the Middle, so a show about him cooking meth seemed like a bizarre turn. The pilot episode of Breaking Bad was a great way of banishing all preconceptions about Cranston. He appears in the desert with a gun in his hand, and the episode then flashes back to show the gradual unraveling of a respected family man. It was immediately eye-catching, but many of Breaking Bad’s best episodes came much later.

7 Abbott Elementary (2021-)

A sitcom that rose above its competitors

Quinta Brunson smiling as Janine in the Abbott Elementary season 2 finale

Network sitcoms have become less frequent and less likely to break through in recent years. Abbott Elementary succeeds against these odds, even without a groundbreaking premise which could immediately draw attention. Abbott Elementary excels in every fundamental of sitcoms. The writing and acting are both outstanding, but the real key is Abbott Elementary’s carefully constructed characterization. The teachers are each perfectly designed to antagonize each other in just the right way, and they each speak with distinct voices.

6 The Queen’s Gambit (2020)

Injecting new life into chess

Beth The Queen's Gambit

It could easily have faded into obscurity among Netflix’s many limited series, but The Queen’s Gambit became an immediate sensation upon its release. The drama follows Beth Harmon, a young chess prodigy who endures a rocky childhood and more personal demons to rise through the professional rankings. Replete with wonderful period details, The Queen’s Gambit proved that there is still a place for detailed character dramas in the age of streaming, and that original stories can still gain traction. Not only did it fast track Anya Taylor-Joy on her route to stardom, it also caused a resurgence in the popularity of chess.

5 What We Do In The Shadows (2019-2024)

Adapting movies for TV is never easy

Natasia Demetriou, Matt Berry, and Kayvan Novak as Nadja, Lazslo, and Nandor sitting and looking attentively in What We Do in The Shadows

There aren’t many movies which can successfully translate into the format of TV, especially when those movies are anything less than enormous hits. What We Do in the Shadows, directed by Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement, follows a group of vampires sharing a house in New Zealand. The show moves to Staten Island, and it features an entirely new cast, so there wasn’t an awful lot to tie it to the movie. An outstanding cast and a willingness to try things the movie never even considered made the show a huge success. Season 6 of What We Do in the Shadows will sadly be the show’s last.

4 Riverdale (2017-2023)

Forgotten characters given a new life

Jughead Betty Kevin Archie and Veronica in Riverdale season 2

The characters from the original Archie comics first appeared in the 1940s. To say they had faded from the cultural zeitgeist by 2017 would be an understatement, but The CW revitalized them in the format of a teen drama. In practice, the characters in Riverdale share very little with their comic book equivalents, and the show incorporates far more supernatural elements than Archie, Jughead, and Veronica ever dealt with in the 1940s. Riverdale used its pre-existing characters as a starting point, but the show developed its own unique approach from there. After seven seasons, Riverdale came to an end in 2023.

3 Andor (2022-)

A strange choice for a Star Wars spinoff

The success of The Mandalorian was a positive indicator, but some eyebrows were raised when Disney announced its next Star Wars series would focus on Cassian Andor, who first appeared in Rogue One. He was not the first character in the Star Wars universe who seemed like he needed his own show, but this allowed Andor to tell its own story, unrestrained by the limits of expectation. Star Wars has a devoted fan base who will watch any show in the same universe, and Andor proved to be immensely rewarding. Although nobody asked for it, Andor became vital viewing. Andor season 2 should be coming soon.

2 Schitt’s Creek (2015-2020)

The Canadian comedy found a new audience on streaming services

Patrick, David, Alexis and Stevie wave an emotional goodbye in Schitt's Creek.

Schitt’s Creek boasted an impressive comedy pedigree, with Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara working together again after starring in some of Chrisopher Guest’s best movies. But shows on Canadian television rarely find an international audience, and Schitt’s Creek didn’t become a global phenomenon until it was added to Netflix during its third season. Schitt’s Creek’s outstanding cast helped it overcome the odds, as did its positive representation of queer stories and its earnest warmth. Schitt’s Creek only needed an audience for its unique brand of humor, and luckily it got one. It may not have had the chance to wrap up its story so beautifully without this second wind.

1 The Simpsons (1989-)

Truly groundbreaking TV

The Simpsons blazed its own trail, and its success ushered in a new era of animated sitcoms.

Although it has since developed into the longest-running American sitcom of all time, The Simpsons started out as a series of shorts on The Tracey Ullman Show. It was unknown how the show would fare in its expanded format, especially since there were no real equivalents. The Simpsons blazed its own trail, and its success ushered in a new era of animated sitcoms. It first managed to capture people’s attention simply because it looked unlike anything else on TV at the time, but its superb writing made it a hit. Although the characters are bright yellow, The Simpsons is much more grounded than many other cartoons from the 1980s.

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